SCIENCE OF MINDFULNESS
MINDFULNESS is a therapeutic practice that cultivates awareness, non-judgement, moment-to-moment living and empathy. It is a form of meditation, which is an ancient mind-body practice of deepening consciousness by bringing focus to a particular object of attention (more on meditation here). During a mindfulness practice, attention is held on the present moment through focus on bodily sensations, thought patterns, sounds, and the breath. This focused attention allows the practitioner to become aware of their thoughts, emotions, and experiences and cultivate a sense of non-judgmental self-acceptance for what they are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
For thousands of years, traditions from the far east to the middle east and beyond have recommended a “mindfulness practice” to enhance overall well-being, as it brings balance to one's psychological and physical states of being. Besides meditation, other practices that strengthen mindfulness include Yoga, Chanting and Mantras.
The Buddhist-inspired program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) now taught all over the United States in the form of an 8-week course trains students on how to relate and react to different stresses in their lives through strengthening mindful awareness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the program, has helped people alleviate their debilitating medical and psychological conditions through this therapeutic program. A few skills one may learn through MBSR are practical coping skills for adversity, methods for remaining relaxed and at ease, strengthening awareness of the mind and body, and tools on how to overcome difficult or stressful situations. The MBSR Program includes mindfulness techniques such as silent guided meditation, full body scan, mindful walking and mindful eating practices, and more. These are all performed to bring attention to the mind and body’s sensations in the present moment, to generate self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Recent scientific research provided by Harvard University identified different regions of the brain that are affected, changed, and improved as a result of a daily mindfulness meditation practice. Dr. Sara Lazar was one of the first scientists to provide these claims and tested them in brain scans. Lazar found differences (“thickening”) in brain volume in students after they completed an eight-week MBSR program - specifically in the posterior cingulate cortex, the hippocampus, the temporo parietal junction and pons.
- The posterior cingulate cortex is involved in our mind wandering and self relevance
- The left hippocampus assists us in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation
- The temporo parietal junction (TPJ) is associated with our perspective, empathy and compassion.
- Pons is where our regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
Practicing mindfulness is also scientifically shown to support three major portions of the brain: The amygdala, the Prefrontal Cortex and the Hippocampus.
- The Amygdala is part of our limbic system and is responsible for our responses (fight or flight response), and memories of emotions
- The prefrontal cortex regulates our cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning. *Mindfulness has been shown to train and improve the prefrontal cortex to pay attention, absorb details, and think clearly*
- The hippocampus processes and stores our memories such as names and sensory triggers, such as smells.
Ohio State University psychologist Ruchika Prakash states that “Ultimately mindfulness is about creating this deeper relationship with who we are as a person and developing greater self-awareness.”